This past Sunday, on December 10, the Sisters and Companions led an Advent Lessons and Carols service based on the “Great O’s.” The Great O’s are a series of antiphons to the Magnificat sung at Vespers each evening from December 16 to 23. They date from at least the eighth century C.E. So powerfully do they express our longing for the coming of God, that they are still sung by choirs, especially in cathedrals and monastic communities, in the 21st century.In this service, the Sisters sang each of the great O’s to the traditional Tone 2 plainchant, and after a meditation written by Sister Doreen McGuff, the congregation sang the corresponding verse of the well-beloved hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” by the 19th century hymn writer and monastic founder John Mason Neale, who translated it from a 12th century Latin hymn.
The seven Great O’s are:
O Wisdom O Lord O Branch of Jesse O Key of David O Morning Star O King of the Nations O Emmanuel
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a metrical paraphrase of the Great O antiphons., and It’s interesting to note that Neale placed the last, climactic Great O – “O Emmanuel” – as the first verse of the hymn. In Sunday’s service, we sang the verses in their traditional order, beginning with “O Wisdom” (O Sapientia in Latin) and ending with the climactic “O Emmanuel.”
In the traditional form of the Great O’s there is a four-part structure which enhances the deep human longing for God, which is the central theme of Advent. For instance, here is the first of the Great O’s:
O Wisdom from the mouth of the Most High: you reign over all things to the ends of the earth; come and teach us how to live.
The structure is:
A calling to Jesus: “O” with a particular name: O Wisdom Followed by an attribute: from the mouth of the Most High: you reign over all things to the ends of the earth Then a prayer beginning with “come”: come and teach Followed by the people it is interceding for: us how to live.
Beginning tomorrow, December 17, we will be posting daily through December 23 the antiphon for that day, along with a related scripture passage, Sr. Doreen’s meditation, and the accompanying verse from “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” As you read the meditations and perhaps sing for yourself the corresponding verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” may the longing of your heart be met with the deep peace of Christ.
Reading the gospel for the first Sunday of Advent (Mark 13.24-37) with its emphasis on “Beware, keep alert, stay awake!” brought to mind a secular song on that theme:
You better watch out, You better not cry You better not pout, I’m telling you why Santa Claus is coming to town He’s making a list, He’s checking it twice, He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping And he knows when you’re awake He knows if you’ve been bad or good So be good for goodness sake You better watch out, You better not cry You better not pout, I’m telling you why Santa Claus is coming to town I mean the big fat man with the long white beard is coming to town!
The big fat man with a long white beard we often associate with the benign creature who lives at the North Pole, drives through the sky on a sleigh pulled by 8 (or is it 9?) reindeer, who climbs down chimneys and leaves presents for children, and whose belly shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughs. He also hangs out in department stores and shopping malls, where children sit on his lap, tell him their secret wishes for Christmas presents, and believe he will fulfill all their desires (dare we call them secular prayers?)
For other children though, and for many adults, Santa Claus may remind them too much of a God who threatens and judges and who does not answer their prayers for presents or even for food, housing and clothing.
And actually this song is not about a benign Santa who loves children – it’s about a judge who threatens kids (or adults) to get them to behave. “You better not pout, you better not cry, you better watch out” because Santa is coming. He’s making a list, checking it twice. He’s going to find out who has behaved and who hasn’t. And in some cultural traditions if you’ve been judged to be naughty or bad you get a piece of coal in your stocking instead of the presents you told Santa you wanted.
Unfortunately this is also the image many have of God — the judge who keeps a list of our sins and maybe of our good deeds too, and depending on which list is longer, we could end up with our names written in the book of life – or not. I do not think, however, that that is the message of Jesus.
When Jesus says in Mark’s gospel,“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” he is not talking about how many good or bad deeds we’ve done, about whether we’ve cried or pouted. He is not trying to frighten us into good behaviour like scary old Santa Claus. He’s talking about being aware, conscious, waiting for God’s work to unfold, the consummation of history. The Judaeo-Christian understanding of history is that it has an end, a goal – a time when both earth and heaven will pass away — suggesting a completely new reality that transcends all our spiritual geographies.
Advent is a time in the liturgical year when we wait with expectation and hope for that eventual consummation, even as we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the first coming of Jesus into the world. As Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” We believe that history has a purpose, and it is not a meaningless cycle of repetition.
This longing for God to come among us in a totally new way is expressed powerfully in the passage from Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” We long for justice, for an end to the arrogance and hunger for power and threats that surround us internationally. We long for God to come and put it right. We know we have been made for communion with God: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry O lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”
So our longing and waiting for God in Advent is a desire for justice on the macro scale and divine intimacy on the personal and communal level. We desire a new relationship with God and a restoration of God’s creation – a new heaven and a new earth.
That is a theme from the Isaiah that is echoed in Psalm 80 – “now consider, we are all your people” the psalmist cries. “Hear, O Shepherd of Israel . . . Restore us, O God of hosts.” Restore us to a loving and intimate relationship with you. Restore our disordered relationships with each other. Restore our damaged earth. We remember that God created us, God is the potter; God guides us as a shepherd; God saves us by “the light of your countenance” – just by looking at us in love.
That is why we long for spiritual intimacy, why we long for love – because we are created for love. We long to be forgiven, reconciled, accepted. And then we hear Jesus say in Mark’s gospel “Beware, keep alert . . . “you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all. Keep awake.” But that doesn’t have to be scary. In fact the image of the fig tree that Jesus uses is a symbol of new life. We see the signs around us, just as the tender leaves on the fig tree herald the coming of summer, so the natural and political disturbances around us herald the coming of God.
But what if the coming of God is something we already experience? Perhaps staying awake and being alert also means paying attention to the appearances of God all around us – the really good and positive things in our lives – God comes in many guises.
So we long for the coming of God – the second coming of Jesus – but it’s a lot more fruitful than the coming of Santa Claus. Because we are all on God’s list – both naughty and nice. “Restore us, O God” – that’s us, not me. That’s all God’s creation, not just those in the in group who have the right interpretation of the Bible and the right theology. We are all invited into a relationship of repentance and intimacy with the God who made us and shepherds us and longs for us – not only as individuals but as nations – to come back home.
And the wonderful gift that makes that possible is God’s grace – that is a gift more beautiful than any gift from Santa. In the song, we are either on Santa’s list or not – we have either been good or bad. But in God’s song which we call the Bible, we are all invited into a loving relationship with God. “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthian church – “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
So instead of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” we are invited to sing “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel has come to you O Israel.” That is the song of Advent.
One of my favourite pieces of music is Smetana’s “The Moldau.” Smetana uses tones to evoke the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers. He said “the composition describes the course of the Moldau, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Moldau, to the coming together of both streams into a single current. the flow of the Moldau takes us through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, past majestic rocks and proud castles, palaces and ruins. The water swirls into rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at a river.” If you were to listen to the music, you would hear in the crescendos and decrescendos each moment Smetana describes – the small rivers joining, the rapids and the majesty and grandeur of the river fading in the distance. It is structured with highs and lows, rough patches and smooth sailing.
In today’s first reading from Philippians (2.5-11), we hear another beautiful piece of music – not so much in a tune but in the movement of our passage. Susan Eastman says, “Our passage is often referred to as “the Christ Hymn,” because it is believed that Paul is quoting a very early hymn from the worship of the church.” If we were to re-read the passage, I think we would hear once again the crescendos and decrescendos of its message. “We hear of Christ himself taking the form of a slave, humbling himself even to the point of death by crucifixion and we also learn that if we want to become like Christ, we begin by hearing how Christ became like us, and continues to come among us.” The movement in this dramatic passage is musical, one of descent and ascent…crescendos and decrescendos – of being humbled and being exalted – and moves us from separation to unity, and from difference to likeness. It is a movement of opposites that draw us in to a journey.
Today we remember Leo the Great. He was an effective pastor and wise teacher who served as the bishop of Rome from the year 440 until his death. Stephen Reynolds, in For All the Saints, says that “Leo’s reputation as a teacher of the faith rests first of all on the sermons he preached at Christmas, in Lent, on Easter Day and on Pentecost. He did not analyze and present formal arguments but instead took a series of contrasting images from Scripture and set them in pairs, in order to suggest the breadth of salvation through the union of opposites.”
Reynolds goes on to say that “He used this same method when he was drawn into a church-wide controversy about the person of Christ. He said: ‘God the Word assumed the form of a servant without the defilement of sin, and enriched what was human without impoverishing what was divine. For the self-emptying by which the Invisible caused himself to be visible, and by which the Creator and Lord of all things willed to be mortal, was a bowing down in compassion, not a failure of power.’ His ability to unite different scriptural images so that the faithful might pray into the mystery of salvation – combined with his gifts as a true leader in a time of crisis – is the reason he is called Leo “the Great.”
Our passage from Philippians explains the journey of Christ and has a musical movement of emptiness, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, of humbling himself, being obedient to death, and being exalted. It isn’t a surprise to me that this beautiful hymn is our reading on this day that we remember Leo the Great because it holds the opposites that I think he would have highlighted: of being humbled and being exalted; moving from separation to unity, and from difference to likeness as a way of inviting his listeners to pray into the mystery of salvation.
Like Smetana’s Moldau, Leo the Great and Paul in his letter to the Philippians are so memorable because they share a journey, a journey that we have been invited into – being in the fullness of Christ by sharing in the love of Christ, the Spirit of Christ, the compassion and the sympathy of Christ. A journey that touches not just the head, but the heart as well. Thanks be to God for inviting each of us into this musical journey and for the faithfulness of Leo the Great in sharing it.
The Rev. Karen Hatch, Rector of St. Margaret-in-the-Pines, Toronto
When it comes to God you can always expect the unexpected. For Sister Doreen McGuff, a young impressionable self-proclaimed dreamer, the 60s was a pivotal decade for her. “I had just started university in 1960 in Vancouver,” says Sister Doreen. “It was the eve of hippies, and you were either high on LSD or Jesus Christ. But we all had a dream of peace and love.”
Sister Doreen remembers the decade fondly, though the political landscape was highly charged. She had boyfriends and was planning on becoming a teacher – but God intervened in the most unexpected way. “My dream was sparked when someone with beautiful wavy hair, incredible good looks, a flashy silver outfit and an electric guitar with swaying hips and a low voice began to sing.”
Interestingly enough, the King of Rock and Roll inspired Sister Doreen to follow the King of Kings, and she can pinpoint the exact instance. One may assume she was influenced by one of Elvis’ famous gospel songs. But it was a mainstream anthem that woke up Sister’s soul – Love me Tender. “I was especially touched by the words: love me tender love me sweet, never let me go, you have made my life complete and I love you so. I thought if only I – we – could love each other that tenderly, that tenaciously, imagine what we could do.”
Sister Doreen would have screamed along with the teeny boppers in the stands at Elvis’ concerts – she has every record. Her fandom for Elvis apparent, but for her, Elvis’ influence was so much more than sex appeal and a powerful voice. “I really feel Elvis was a great theologian,” says Sister Doreen. “This is what really turned me to my vocation. I realized listening to Elvis’ music that God walks with me all the time and that God’s love is more than we can ask or hope for. God himself is a hound dog in a loving way, always calling, sharing, leading and prodding.”
Coming to the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto, Ontario in 1965 for a vacation, Sister Doreen knew by the second day she wasn’t going to be a teacher. She was going to stay. She had found her home.
Life continued, and threw her twists and turns. One of her biggest obstacles came in 1999 when she suffered a heart attack and had to have bypass surgery. It took her a full year to recover and she thought she would never escape “that grey place.” “I could only walk 100 meters in the beginning.” As she walked she would quietly sing Love Me Tender. It became her mantra. Slowly her distance and speed increased, and as it did she had an epiphany – God is beside us through our toughest times and walks at our pace, whatever that pace may be.
She lovingly refers to the Lord as “her three-mile an hour God.” “Some days, years, or circumstances in life lead you to feel very much like you are in the wilderness,” recalls Sister. “And you are never there just once, you always go back. We all experience hard times, Elvis’ life was the same. We do things we wish we hadn’t.”
In 2006, pondering scripture, Sister had a thought that inspired an Elvis workshop; tying together the music and words that dramatically converted her soul. She was getting frustrated over the things the church was fighting over and the list seemed endless. She pondered what other generations would think when they looked at hers. She felt hope needed to be rekindled. So she created and ran the workshop with much success, and in the years following was nudged to do it again, but it never felt right.
Until one day, when someone “with beautiful wavy hair, incredible good looks, and a low voice began to sing.” Reverend Matthew Martin was at the Sisterhood as a postulant working through his assessments to become a priest. Everyone at the convent knew how much Sister Doreen loved Elvis and Rev. Matt just happened to be an Elvis tribute artist. Something he had been doing since the tender age of six. When someone told Rev. Matt about Sister’s affinity for the “King” he came into the convent dining room and sang Love Me Tender. And that clinched it! It still took several years, but once again the workshop came alive. This time much to Sister’s satisfaction, she had Rev. Matt in person playing Elvis rather than playing videos.
Similar to Elvis, Rev. Matt had his own struggles and was able to reflect on his past during the full day workshop. During his sermon he brought the congregation to tears as he shared his own personal story of addiction to alcohol. Rev. Matt reflected on how Elvis has worked in his life and told the story of how he was asked to do the production Blue Suede Shoes. The complication was he was in seminary. “Thanks to the Dean’s wisdom, who allowed me to do the show I truly discovered I didn’t want to entertain for a living,” said Rev. Matt. “I knew my call was to serve the church.”
Rev. Matt has found many ways to incorporate Elvis music into ministry, and it has opened many doors. “I’ve sang Love Me Tender in hospitals and retirement homes. I have been blessed with grace-given moments. I see the joy on people’s faces who are in long-term care or palliative care. It’s a powerful thing. It’s really about using our gifts for good and remaining who we are.”
Throughout the workshop, which was laced with poignant reflections and both spiritual and mainstream Elvis songs, there was plenty of toe-tapping and hand clapping. One participant fulfilled Sister Doreen’s vision for the day of a “fun and holy time,” by announcing aloud, “I’m having a good time God!”
There were also peaceful moments as people walked the labyrinth or visited the convent’s outdoor Stations of the Cross. One participant said the more she heard Rev. Matt sing, the more she found the songs moving. Many times during the event one could look across the intimate audience and see people’s eyes closed as they listened intently to the powerful words they maybe didn’t recognize in Elvis’ work before now.
The workshop’s focus was on life and how it can be unraveled and rewoven, and how faith and love can heal a broken world. “It is the context for transformation,” said Sister Doreen. “To live out our call to love one another and accept God’s delight and pleasure in us, to accept that we are loved wildly and completely, as a whole package, with all our faults and imperfections. God is human and hides in the world in you and me. This workshop is to bring people home to the heart of God where we belong, knowing that God will always love us tenderly and never let us go.”
A Homily based on the readings for Thanksgiving Day: Deuteronomy 8.7-18, Psalm 65, 2 Corinthians 9.6-15, Luke 17.11-19
One of my favourite Peanuts comic strips has Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and the gang waiting in the pumpkin patch at night, hoping to see the Great Pumpkin when it arises. (Now you may think this has more to do with Halloween than Thanksgiving, but in Canada, where Thanksgiving comes before Halloween, the Great Pumpkin has to rise early.) Linus is holding up a big sign that says “Welcome Great Pumpkin” and he says:
“Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”
I think that this gathering of friends for the annual St. John’s Convent Thanksgiving celebration is the most sincere pumpkin patch I have ever seen. None of us can make a claim to fame or fortune. We’re just ordinary people, travelling the peaks and valleys of our lives in partnership with each other and our loving God. But we treasure our friendship with one another as we treasure the feast of sincerity and truth that Christ offers us at this communion table. That’s really our only reason for being here. And while that might not be all of what it means to be sincere, it’s a big part of it.
We have no ulterior motive, no hidden agenda. In a world where alternate facts compete with sincerity and truth, and where violence and greed are the complete opposite of giving thanks, we come together here just because we’re invited to God’s table in Eucharistic fellowship with each other. And Eucharist in Greek means thanksgiving. So we come to the table together, and we extend that communion to the Refectory table – just because we want to celebrate the friendship of Jesus in our own little pumpkin patch.
Now we’re not perfect, of course, but sincerity is not about perfection. It’s about vulnerability, about being who we really are with one another rather than putting on a perfect face as we share our hopes and fears, our anxieties and joys. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, as Paul says. But we are all headed in the same direction, trying our best to follow Jesus in a world where that is so difficult to do. So rather than think of sincerity as some kind of impossible goal of perfection, I find it helpful to think of it as single-mindedness, one heart and mind with one common focus.
Sincerity has many expressions, and they are beautifully reflected in the readings this morning in some of the riches passages of scripture. I want to name four: remembering, humility, generosity, and gratitude.
The reading from Deuteronomy challenges us to remember as we listen to God’s promise of bounty as the people of Israel prepare to enter the promised land – it’s an almost utopian vision of plenty and beauty and abundance. But it comes with a charge – to “remember” or “not to forget.” Those words are repeated many times in the passage and throughout the book of Deuteronomy, where they are a major theme:
“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God or his ordinances and statutes. Never forget the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt and provided for you in the wilderness. Remember the Lord your God so that your God will confirm the covenant made with your ancestors.”
So that is the first important expression of sincerity – a sincere pumpkin patch is one where the gathered community remembers the past and celebrates in the present – and that in fact is what the Eucharist is about. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said.
In the Psalm we have another important expression of sincerity, and that is humility. I use the word in the literal sense of the Latin root, humus or “earth,” “dirt.” The Psalm reminds us that we are creatures, made of the earth, co-inheritors and protectors of the plants and animals, the soil and air and water.
“By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might. . . . You crown the year with your bounty; your pastures overflow; the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.”
We are part of the earth, part of God’s creation. Being humble means recognizing that we are not the creators, we are creatures and as such we have a responsibility to nurture this beautiful planet God has given us for our home.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we are charged with another manifestation of sincerity, and that is generosity – not only being generous with our food and the provisions we need for our life – but in our ministry, in sharing the gospel:
“Through the testing of this ministry,” Paul says, “you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that has been given you. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!”
The indescribable gift that Paul is talking about is the gift of God’s grace – the offering of God’s very self in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Being sincere means that we are generous in sharing that indescribable gift.
And finally, in the gospel Jesus enjoins us to a fourth expression of sincerity, and that is the word we most associate with this Thanksgiving Day – gratitude. Only one of the lepers that Jesus healed came back to thank him and to praise God. Jesus says to him, “get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Now the other nine were healed as well so why does Jesus say that this tenth leper was made well by his faith? I think Jesus is talking of being made well in a more holistic sense – he was not just cured of his leprosy, but he was made a new creation, whole in every way.
Remembering, humility, generosity, and gratitude – these are the spiritual gifts of sincerity. In the Eucharistic prayer – what is called the prayer of thanksgiving – we will remember all that God has done for us; we will recognize in humility that we are creatures of the earth, not the creator; we will be generous in offering ourselves to God as we receive God’s generous gift to us, and we will express gratitude – in fact the very word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.”
So in our remembering, our humility, our generosity, and our gratitude – in our little pumpkin patch in this corner of our God’s kingdom – “let us celebrate the feast with sincerity and truth,” as we give thanks for the humble piece of bread and sip of wine we will receive as a manifestation of God’s indescribable gift to us and for the meal that will extend our feast from this table to the Refectory table.
Frances Drolet Smith preached the following homily for the ending of the Women at a Crossroads program at St. John’s Convent on Sunday, July 23.
It was the prophet Mark Twain who said, “There are basically two types of people in the world. People who accomplish things and people who claim to have accomplished things — the first group is less crowded.”
Today’s Gospel (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) also presents a dichotomy, contrasting two kinds of plants: one deemed a useful grain, the other a loathsome weed.
This story is one in a series of 6 parables Jesus tells in this section of Matthew’s Gospel, in which he’s drawing for his disciples, (and for anyone else who has the interest and the “ears to hear”) an illustration of what the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is like.
This story is about those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world: the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, the righteous and unrighteous.
Now, those who believe there two kinds of people in the world tend also to believe, with all their hearts (and souls and minds and strength) – I mean, they really believe, that not only are they themselves the wheat, that is, the good people, the righteous ones; they also believe that they know “who” the weeds, the bad people, the unrighteous, are. And not only that, they also believe it is their mission to, pardon the pun, weed them out. And the Master farmer says “No”, because the truth is, there aren’t two kinds of people in the world. The truth is, there are two kinds of people in each of us.
We lived for a time in Newfoundland and I am on record as saying to anyone who might have any influence, that I am a wanna-be Newfoundlander. And it is because of the kind of hospitality we received there and the profound, prophetic, down-to-earth, honest pronouncements people would make. I once heard a mother say to her son who was about 8 years old at the time and who was complaining about the unfairness of the world as only an 8 year old can, “Take care of your own self, my son. All in good time, God’ll take care of the rest.” She was not suggesting for a moment that the boy indulge in selfishness, neither was she implying that the boy had no need of God or that God would wreak vengeance on whoever or whatever had upset him. What she was fostering was a self-awareness in her son, a kind of personal reckoning that makes a body conscious of one’s connection to others in the world. As far as that mother was concerned it was not in her son’s purview to declare someone else’s grainy-ness or weediness. Be concerned with your own productivity – with what you are doing to improve life for others – God will do the rest, all in good time.
The puzzling out of our lives is sometimes a hard, even slow, task. That boy is grown up now, and has gone on, along with some friends, to tour the world. They will never make a fortune in what they are doing, but they are making millions of people believe a better world is possible through their music.
Trying to figure out just who we are before God and neighbour and what in fact we’re called to do to “improve life for others” is a full time occupation. So intertwined are our lives that it is impossible to extricate ourselves without impacting others.
And worrying about who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, who’s righteous and who’s not, distracts us from the real work God has called us to, for it impedes us in accomplishing the work of proclaiming – and living the Gospel.
With care and deliberation, a farmer plants good seed in good soil. He has, in a sense, eliminated the risk of wasting precious seed. And yet he now finds weeds growing freely among the wheat. I don’t know about your experience with planting a garden, but I know how this farmer feels. You clear a patch of earth, dig and prepare it carefully, according to the seed packet, planting the seeds the recommended distance apart, and at the required depth, (I have a trowel with measurements on the blade so I can get it right) and despite this clever technology, the weeds still thrive. In fact, they are often the first things to poke their heads above the ground. And even after years of trying, I don’t always know which green shoots are weeds and which are not.
The servants of the farmer in today’s parable have a more discerning eye. They recognize the weeds. And so their first response is to ask their Master, “Didn’t you sow good seeds?” Their seeds didn’t come pre-packaged, with specific instructions – and they likely didn’t have (or need) a fancy measuring tool. Their seeds were gleaned from the previous year’s harvest. And they knew how to carefully sift through them and take out any dried up or shrivelled ones, because if you’re careless with these details, the results could be what we see happening here.
Didn’t you sow good seeds? “Of course I did”, replies the farmer, concluding that “An enemy has done this”. “Well then let us rip them out!” But the farmer cautions them not to do so, for in pulling out the weeds they may also damage the roots of the good plants. “Let the wheat and the weeds grow together and we will sort it out later at harvest time.”
Isn’t it just like us to think we can control the outcome? Isn’t it just like us to think we know better than the One who’s made us and claims us? Isn’t it just like us to think we’ve a better idea, a more accurate tool, a more predictable conclusion? And haven’t we (hopefully) seen in our own lives that a body can change? That we can sometimes go from worse to better?
Today’s Gospel speaks to me of the wideness of God’s mercy. We might think we can root out, get rid of the weeds, but in life, weeds are a reality. In some ways the challenge of growing and competing with the weeds actually strengthens the wheat – as well as the resolve of the farmer! Vocation is not a coat you put on, but rather something you “grow into”. Sometimes it feels like the wrong fit. Sometimes you may feel out of your depth or in over your head or like the soil you’re in is a little rocky or needing nutrients. Finding your vocation is in part to keep your eyes on the possibility and potential; all in good time, all in God’s time.
Today’s Collect bears repeating: “O God, patient and forbearing, strengthen our spirit when we are slow, and temper our zeal when we are rash, so that in your own good time you may produce in us a rich harvest from the seed you have sown and tended; through Jesus Christ, the promise of a new creation. Amen.”
By Matt Gardner Reprinted with permission of the Anglican Church of Canada
More than 10 months after a group of young women began living with members of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD), the inaugural Companions on the Way program is drawing to a close—an experience that left a major impact on sisters and companions alike.
The sisters officially commissioned five companions in September 2016: Christine Stoll, Sarah Moesker, Amanda Avery, Hanné Becker, and Alisa Samuel, though the latter three were unable to stay for the entire duration of the program. During their time at the SSJD’s Toronto-based convent, the companions joined in living the monastic lifestyle of the sisters, devoting their days to work, study, prayer, and spiritual contemplation.
A typical day for the companions began at 6 a.m. with two hours of personal prayer. After eating breakfast, they attended morning prayer in the chapel before devoting time to various work projects.
Afternoons were filled with study and rest. The companions each took part in two courses at Wycliffe College during the fall and winter, and also pursued independent studies. Occasionally companions would contribute to a blog documenting their experiences. Dinner and cleanup preceded evening prayer and rest time.
Work of the companions
Reflecting their diverse backgrounds, each of the companions had a unique experience at the convent.
For Stoll—previously a teaching assistant in mathematics at Douglas College in Port Coquitlam, B.C.—work experience included gardening and carrying out tasks in the chapel, such as filing papers and refilling the oil lamp.
“I think living here, for me, it’s been good and healing,” Stoll said.
“In terms of discernment, I wasn’t expecting to have everything all figured out at the end of this year,” she added. “But I think I have a clearer sense of what it is I need to do.”
Having spent recent weeks debating what to do after the program ends, she is leaning towards returning to her work as a teaching assistant.
“Maybe the thing that surprised me about myself is that leaving here, one of the things that I’m thinking of is that I would like to live in a community, which for me is not something that I was expecting,” Stoll said. “I’m not planning to live as a sister … but to live in some kind of community.”
Moesker, a student at Canadian Mennonite University, described her time at the convent as “good, but hard”, noting the amount of work that is required of participants. At the same time, she added, “Working hard isn’t a bad thing. It’s really satisfying and fulfilling.”
During the first half of her stay at the convent, Moesker spent much of her time working in the kitchen. The latter half saw her providing pastoral care at nearby Sunnybrook Hospital, visiting patients and gaining a sense of their varied spiritual needs, as well as taking care of simple tasks such as delivering newspapers and watering plants.
She described her time at the convent as “stabilizing” and clarifying her post-graduation plans. As she concludes the program, Moesker takes away a renewed sense of spiritual discipline, appreciation for the value of closing her day with prayer, and improved skills in navigating relationships with others.
“I think being here and sort of being forced to interact with the same people constantly—somehow it makes it a safe place to figure out healthy boundaries, to figure out communication,” she said.
Convent life was particularly impactful for Amanda Avery, director of the Ready-Set-Go program for low-income children in Halifax and an Atlantic School of Theology student who is seeking to become an Anglican priest. She described her time in the program as “exciting, stressful … yet joyful”.
“It has been a roller coaster of a ride … The experience has changed me and has given me new insights and new ways to look at not just God, but myself and my community and the people that are in my community,” Avery said.
The majority of Avery’s time was spent at St. John’s Rehab with the sisters and the Rev. Joanne Davies, who serves as chaplain to the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. During this time Avery visited patients and took part in the hospital’s therapy program.
She said the experience tailored her to look at a different kind of ministry than that of a parish priest.
“Something I really haven’t thought of was chaplaincy,” Avery said. “The time I spent at the hospital with the sisters and with Rev. Joanne has changed my thinking of faith in the hospitals, and so I’m definitely looking in that direction … It gave me insights to looking at the broader view of ministry.”
Reflections from the sisters
For the sisters, the experience of living alongside the companions was a positive one.
“I think it brought us a lot of good energy, living with younger women, and opening us up to living with younger people,” Sister Elizabeth Ann Eckert said.
Eckert believed that the companions gained an appreciation for the nature of “a life faithfully lived, and the transformation that happens when you’re in one place or in one vocation for this many years.”
“I think it was a good experience,” Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas said. “Even though all of them didn’t stay and some of them had some difficulties, it added greatly to our choir. It was so lovely to have some younger people to relate to. We still have a lot to learn about how best to help them. But I enjoyed their energy, and each of them helped us in different ways.”
The degree to which the companions integrated surprised even the sisters. Though the companions were originally allotted time each morning to hold a conference amongst themselves, they ultimately chose to join the sisters at that time—an arrangement that “worked much better,” Rolfe-Thomas said.
“It was a little different from what we had in mind,” Sister Wilma Grazier said. “The idea was that they would form their own community within a community. But as it was presented, it didn’t work out that way from their point of view.”
Highlights for the sisters included the evening prayers put together and formatted by the companions, as well as an Agape supper chiefly organized by Avery but in which all the companions helped out.
“They all took part in [the supper], and it was a wonderfully profound experience,” Rolfe-Thomas said. “They put so much effort into it.”
Future of the Companions program
With the successful completion of the first Companions on the Way program, the SSJD now plans to take time to evaluate the experience. The sisters meet in chapter annually, and Companions on the Way is slated to be a major topic at their August chapter meeting.
“We feel we need a year to evaluate the [Companions on the Way] program and see if there are changes we want to make in it, rather than just flowing from one to the next,” Sister Constance Joanna Gefvert said.
Nevertheless, Rolfe-Thomas said, the Companions program will “go ahead in some form”.
For information about future possibilities for Companions, please contact the Companions Coordinator, Sr. Constance Joanna, at email@example.com
One morning, a few weeks ago, I was standing on a bus weaving its way into the center of Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was crowded with people making their to work, or school or various tourist attractions. When I offered my seat to someone, a woman sitting nearby asked what part of Canada I was from. When I told her “Nova Scotia”, her friend said, “Ach, sure, you guessed right. My ma always said when in doubt always assume they’re Canadian, that way you won’t insult anyone.” I have to tell you I was surprised by the smug satisfaction that came almost immediately to mind – she hadn’t mistaken me for an American! (my apologies to those present among us) Frankly, I was relieved that I didn’t have to correct anyone or explain anything about what’s been happening south of our border. And yet, while I am extremely proud of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, of our welcome mat open to the world, of our cultural mosaic and of our official bilingualism, the smugness has waned somewhat. In the lead up to this 150th anniversary of Confederation, I’ve been increasingly un-settled, wondering what exactly it is that we are celebrating. Just as it is easy to find fault with others, it is equally easy to begin to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Yes, we’ve come a long way but there is yet a longer way to go. And Jesus calls us to that longer way, to that greater love, to that laying down of our lives if necessary, to that kinship so necessary to the Kingdom. A drama has been unfolding on Parliament Hill this past week. Early Thursday morning, in a bold move described as a re-occupation of the land, a grassroots Indigenous group erected a teepee as a symbol of the unresolved grievances of many Indigenous people who say they have little reason to celebrate the country’s history of colonialization, land dispossession, Indian residential schools and forced assimilation. After an initial confrontation with the RCMP, the ceremonial teepee was moved from the edge of the Hill to a more central location, near the Peace Tower, where it will remain throughout the festivities this weekend. A spokesperson for the group said “It’s like a miracle happened for us. It’s a road for us to go forward in all the things that happened to our people. That’s what it represents. That door is open now and we came through. We’re being acknowledged.” Later on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “We recognize that over the past decades, generations, and indeed centuries, Canada has failed Indigenous peoples. We have not built the kind of present, the kind of future for first peoples, for First Nations, for Inuit, for Métis people across this country. We need to be doing a much better job of hearing their stories and building a partnership for the future.” Yesterday afternoon Justin Trudeau visited with those gathered — meeting privately with them inside the teepee. The activists later acknowledged that while there was not a lot that he could promise outright, his visit symbolized his publicly stated commitment to move forward with national reconciliation efforts by meeting and really listening to people. An activist present at the meeting said his visit “Recognize[s] me as a human being, because that is the fundamental problem, a crisis situation that we’re facing here on Turtle Island, that the settlers don’t view us as human beings. What you take for granted, we’re still fighting for that right.” Her reference to “settlers” unsettles me. My family tree – and perhaps yours as well – is complicated, with its own mosaic qualities. I’m the daughter of a first generation Irish immigrant and a 5th generation re-settled Huguenot. There is rumour of a Metis connection to the Riel Rebellion there too. My discomfort stems largely from the realization of how little I know about our collective history. I was raised on – and loved – the romanticized stories of the voyageurs and their ceinture fléchée, running portages through the woods, carrying worldly goods from one body of water to another. And while I’m still attempting to fit those fragments into the bigger picture, I acknowledge the places I’ve yet to portage.
I came across a story this week that may help: Christian Pilon is Métis. Working with an elder, Christian has learned to build birch bark canoes and uses this organic craft to share culture with others. Of the canoe he says, “the outer layer, the skin, white birch bark; because the skin is waterproof, just like our skin. The inner layer is cedar. And to tie everything together, we use spruce roots. Spruce roots are your tendons. That’s what ties all your muscles and your bones together. So this canoe is made in the traditional way. There’s no power tools being used, everything is hand tools. So, no glue, no screws, no nails, no ropes, everything is found in nature. For most people the canoe just looks like a fun ride – and that it is, definitely! But historically speaking, these canoes are what allowed most Canadians to travel into the interior of Canada. But it’s bigger than that. The canoes? This is relationship, relationship building. Our families traveled in this. This is a gift that Canada received from my Anishinaabe ancestors towards my French, European ancestors. We used to travel together in this canoe a long, long time ago. We shared that gift with the understanding that we would paddle together in that canoe and share water, resources and land, and along the way we kinda split up. And sadly we’ve had a rough last 150 years. But, regardless, we are still in this canoe. The paddle is out front, we’re still waiting for Canada to come back into this canoe and share this beautiful craft.” As a man of mixed ancestry, Pilon views the canoe as a metaphor for building relationships, and thinks of it as a powerful symbol for Canada going forward. St. Paul calls the Colossians to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience; to bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, to forgive each other; just as we have been forgiven. He also admonishes them to clothe themselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Jesus calls us to that place of portage where we carry one another.
Human relationships are not perfect; in fact they can be downright messy. There is no “perfect union”. Yet Jesus continues to call us onward. Mosaics are made with broken pieces, fit together, shaped by the overall vision of the artist. We are indeed still in this canoe we call Canada.
May the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, to which indeed we are called in the one body.
Today, we had our usual 8 am Sunday Eucharist. However, being that it is Palm Sunday, it had a bit more flair! We had a procession through the little convent chapel, into the lobby, outside and around a tree, and then back into the chapel. People held their palm branches (woven into the shape of a cross) as voices tentatively warbled the hymn, “All Glory Laud and Honour” a cappella.
The cavalcade was led by a visiting Sister from the Chemin Neuf community in France. She was called “The Crucifer” – which, if I understand correctly, basically means she carried a shiny cross on a stick. I had the nervous delight of being one of the people on either side and slightly behind her, bearing one of the two “torches.” I thought I would mess up, having no real history as a “high church” Anglican, but I just copied the quietly confident novice-Sister who was bearing the other torch parallel me.
But, alas, things quickly became All Glory Laud and Horror as our troupe re-entered the chapel and we torch bearers stopped on either side of the podium in the center of the room to wait out the rest of the hymn and – what do I spy? That’s right. You guessed it. The very content of my nightmares: a ginormous spider. Marching, in good processional form, right up behind me.
I am trapped. I abandon decorum and cannot be sure what profanity (or if any at all) is breathed out as I attempt to push it away with my slippered foot.
Never do this.
The spider grasped the knit wool and followed my foot half way back to my standing place before (Thank the merciful Lord) abandoning ship. It stumbled toward me again and I picked up my skirt and moved around it, letting it pass by; managing, this whole time, not to spill a single bit of wax or set anyone aflame. In fact, perhaps I was more discreet than I felt on the inside, because people went on singing, seeming not to notice a thing.
Needless to say, I made it.
And, despite my distaste for the thing, I was pleased that not a single Sister stomped on it. The worst the creature got was a bewildering encounter with my slipper and an unnoticed look of disapproval from over-top a Sister’s glasses.